Isaac Letoa heads to Dartmouth

The past 12 months have been an amazing basketball journey for North Harbour representative Isaac Letoa.

Isaac was selected to attend ne fewer than four FIBA international tournaments on three different continents in that time. In addition he has also secured a four-year scholarship at Dartmouth College in the USA.

In mid 2016 he attended the FIBA 3x3 Under 18 World Championships in Kazakhstan then in December last year Letoa played a major part in New Zealand’s success at the FIBA Oceania U18 Championships in Fiji in December 2016 where the Junior Tall Blacks qualified for the FIBA U19 World Cup for the first time.

At that World Cup held in Cairo in July 2017 Letoa averaged 8.4 points and 4.6 assists per game. His mature displays earned him a call up to the Tall Blacks for the Asia Cup campaign.

I caught up with Isaac during his last few days in New Zealand before he flew out to the prestigious Ivy League college in New Hampshire, USA.

I began by asking him if any one of the four major tournaments he has attended stood out.

IL - I’ve been to some pretty unique countries Kazakhstan, Egypt and Lebanon are all different to what I am used to. Fiji was a crazy experience with the Junior Tall Blacks (JTB’s) qualifying for the Worlds for the first time. Making history with that team was a pretty cool moment but they have all been great experiences – it’s been a hell of a year.

In Cairo at the U19 World Cup you were in the starting five with a major role to play – was that responsibility something you relished?

Being on the world stage playing against the best players in my age group from around the world was a great experience and being in the starting group was a privilege and has contributed greatly to my experience basketball wise.

How did you find it playing against some of the most powerful basketball countries in the world like Argentina, France and Germany?

I had a couple of bad games, particularly against France, but I think I competed well - as did the team. I think we competed well it just takes an adjustment to get used to playing at that level. We definitely have the talent and the skill it’s just getting used to playing at that level consistently.

There are a bunch of components to that but you need to be locked in at all stages of the game and playing every possession. You really have to value the ball – we had a bit of trouble with turnovers and mental lapses that hugely impacted our games. If we had had just a couple more possessions in a couple of those games it could have changed the outcome.

Having played against some of those top young sides in the world did that increase your own confidence?

Yes although I didn’t really doubt that I could play against them but it did reinforce that us New Zealanders can compete on the world stage.

Was your selection for the Tall Blacks recent international tour a surprise?

Yes it was quite a bit of a surprise! It was a massive opportunity to be called up for the Tall Blacks. I think with the team being a young group it was probably a little easier to be initiated into the Tall Blacks culture along with a bunch of others that were in the same position. Obviously I didn’t play that much and didn’t have a big on court role but just being part of that group and getting exposed to that level of basketball was a great experience. Being exposed to the level of detail required was also revealing.

Reflecting on the trip to Fiji last December, how satisfying was it to win the Oceania Championships?

It was a perfect way to end 2016. I haven’t won a National title having twice finished runners for Westlake Boys at the Secondary Schools champs (2014 v Otago Boys HS and 2015 v Rangitoto). I also finished runners-up for Harbour Under 17’s losing to ACM in 2014.

Finally winning something was pretty cool and beating the Aussies (57-51 in the final) is quite unique.

There is a long line of Tall Blacks that have come out of Westlake Boys (and the Habour representative programme) – the likes of Jarrod Kenny, Tai and Corey Webster, Tom Abercrombie, Kirk Penney, Rob Loe, Jack Salt - have you had a chance and pause to reflect on that?

It’s great to carry on the legacy those players have built and to add my name to a great list of players.

What are your expectations as you head off to Dartmouth to begin your basketball scholarship? Have you even had time to think about it?

I’ve certainly been rushing around quite a bit but its certainly starting to register how big a change it will be. I’m really looking forward to the opportunity just to be immersed in the competition and in a new environment. I think it is the right step as I look ahead to playing professional basketball in the future – I just want to embrace it.Have you heard if there are any differences between an Ivy League basketball programme and other NCAA Division 1 programmes?

I guess there will be higher emphasis on performing on the academic side but if you choose to go to that school you know that it is coming. It’s what I want – I want to push myself on the academic side. It’s what I asked for so no doubt it is what I will be getting!

You mentioned that you have the ambition to play professional basketball but I have always sensed that academics come first for you. Is this the case?

I’ve always seen myself playing professionally, that’s always been the goal, that’s always what I’ve wanted to do. I’m always going to have a back up plan with academics but I definitely want to pursue a basketball career as it is something I have wanted to do for a few years now. I guess things might change in four years time but at the moment and for the last five or six years that is what I have wanted to do – play basketball.

Have you had any recent communication with head coach at Dartmouth, David McLaughlin?

Yes, he’s been emailing me keeping me updated all the time I’ve been away at the World Cup. He’s watched some of the games and given me a little bit of feedback but he said they have organized a video to go over when I get there.

I’ve been talking to all the coaches quite a bit and will be on Skype with one of them tonight. They have organized things for me when I get over there and even told me some things to pack.

There are still three senior guards on the roster are you expecting to play in your freshman year with that sort of competition?

I won’t really be able to tell until I get over there but they have indicated I will get playing time and impact the team. They are in need of a point guard as the starter from last year was a senior and has graduated. They largely have combo guards on their roster that can fill that position but would rather those guys play the 2/3 spots being good shooters. What they want from me is someone who can run the team and play some defence.

I imagine playing with the Wellington Saints in the New Zealand National Basketball League under Kevin Braswell was a beneficial experience for you?

Kevin is extremely knowledgeable point guard wise, he did a really good job pushing me. Training all the time against Shea (Ili) and Corey (Webster) I wasn’t allowed to drop down a level. Going against two of New Zealand’s best guards in every training session was great preparation for going to the States.

Going through scouts and doing the higher level preparation that you don’t do in reps or schools basketball. In addition Kevin is a real charismatic person and a great talker and he installs confidence in you.

And what were you able to learn off another ex point guard, Tall Blacks coach Paul Henare?

You just have to be locked in at that level, as he will definitely hold you accountable. Being under pressure to perform at every training was good and it is what you expect from Pauli.

The preparation at Tall Blacks level was up another notch as every couple of days you are learning more scouts as you prepared for a new team. They have been huge step-ups since leaving high school.

Reflecting on your time playing for Harbour and school teams what do you take away from those opportunities?

I’m pretty sure if we hadn’t moved up to the North Shore from Wellington I wouldn’t have had the enjoyment of playing in three National finals – those were cool experiences. It goes without saying that the support of my family has been immense and the opportunities I have had wouldn’t have been possible without them.


All at Harbour Basketball wish Isaac the very best as he heads to the States to begin the next chapter of his life. We will be watching with interest to see how his career at Dartmouth unfolds. 


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